I step out into a blistering, cold wind, the kind of wind that makes you pull up your collar that much higher to protect your reddened cheeks. Reaching back into the car, I grab the camera that was sitting in the shotgun seat. The car door slams shut, momentarily disturbing the muffled winter silence.
Snow is falling fast and heavy, so much so that the air is wet with it. It’s a beautiful snowfall, though, as it softly buries the tops of cars and outlines the trees along the road.
I dash to the sidewalk and stop under the overhang of a local barbershop. Expecting it to be closed, it’s surprising when I realize that the lights are on inside. Through the window a grey-bearded man sits in a chair, getting a scissor trim from a tall blonde hairdresser. I put my head down and pretend not to look, though, as they’re probably just as surprised to see me standing outside.
After all, who in their right mind would be out in public in a time like this?
I hustle along the sidewalk and turn the corner. A few people are scattered about the city streets, still milling about the town. Two pedestrians are on the street corner waiting to cross, as behind them on the storefront stoop a small woman is curled up without a blanket as she tries to take a nap. Another man is coming down the sidewalk, head down and blowing on his rubber-gloved hands to keep warm. Near the shelter, bodies are bundled up as they form a line down the sidewalk.
Other than the occasional passing vehicle, these few people are the only sign that anyone exists out here. Yet, even they are cautious of each other, passing warily as they take to the far side of the sidewalk.
They call it “social distancing,” a practice that has suddenly become a new norm.
Well, maybe not a norm just yet, but it’s certainly new.
Vanished are the times of handshakes and hugs, shared drinks and laughter at bars and restaurants as traffic bustles down the street; all tell-tale signs of happier times.
The casino lights still shine bright, a stubborn tribute to the old thrill of enticement and care-free desire. But inside it’s now dark and silent, the electronic sound of gold coins hitting the jackpot fading faster than a gambler’s last, desperate dollar.
The streetlights stretch down the Virginia Street Corridor, as the patterned texture of the sidewalk becomes noticeable for the first time. Closing signs, caution tape, and dimly-lit storefronts parallel the streetlights down what is usually a bustling corridor of activity. The only life that remains now, it seems, is the steady lighting sequence of a liquor store’s neon O-P-E-N sign.
The atmosphere is as quiet as it is ominous, so much so that it’s not just the cold that sends a shiver down your spine. Three statues of Greek gods stand watch over a pawn shop across the street, yet even they appear more naked and alone in the cold.
I continue walking down the corridor, keeping my camera tucked and dry in my winter coat. A pedestrian stumbles to the side, keeping a safe distance as we make passing eye contact. I nod quietly, for right now that’s about as close to an acknowledgement I can afford to make.
Up ahead is the famous Reno arch, a proud display and talking point to The Biggest Little City. It’s a notorious and recognizable display around the world, yet even today it’s lights just don’t seem to shine as bright.
At its base, a public worker in a neon-striped jumpsuit carefully wipes it down with sanitation, a soft consolation in the biting, bitter cold.
“Came out to get shots of the desolation, huh?” a voice says, startling me from behind.
I jump to my feet, having crouched at the edge of the sidewalk to get the angle I had wanted. A young man about the same age stands a few feet past my shoulder, keeping a steady distance away. His blue eyes peer cautiously out from under his hooded coat.
“Yeah, it’s pretty wild out here,” I passively shrug. “I just hope it doesn’t last for too long.”
“Me, too,” the hooded man says, pulling out his phone to take a picture of the Reno arch. “Well, have a good one.”
“You too, man. Stay safe,” I responded, turning and continuing on my way.
There’s something about how he said that word that made it echo in my head.
It’s a word that Merriam-Webster defines as a “barren wasteland.”
Yet, it’s a seemingly appropriate word for Reno right now, as it likely applies to just about any major city or small town across the globe.
Yet, somehow it’s still not quite the right word.
To be totally honest, I’m not sure what word would accurately describe the times we currently find ourselves in.
But I have an idea of one.
Although the streets are largely quiet, storefronts closed, and grocery shelves emptied, the world is far from desolate. While many now shelter-in-place with their families, there are some that will always linger out in the open. They’re a population that’s as resilient as they come, the ones that sleep and wander wherever they may. They work day jobs and graveyard shifts, oftentimes skipping meals just to make ends meet. They’re a population that is always visible, yet remain largely unseen.
That is, until the streets are barren and they are all that’s left.
Yet, in the muffled winter silence, as the wet snow dumps quietly on the city streets, they shuffle along to their next destination.
They may feel like they’ve been forgotten, but to them that’s nothing new. They’re survivors, after all, through and through.
But if there’s anything I learned from working with the homeless community for Our Town Reno over the past year…
It’s that humans are resilient.
And let’s be honest: the world has been spinning faster than it’s own good, so it was about time we all stopped and took a collective breath.
But hopefully in these times of desolation, we re-discover what’s truly important and remember what sets us apart from the rest of life on Earth.
Things like compassion, empathy, and integrity.
Principles that can often be left by the wayside when things are going well, neglected like those torn-up cardboard signs on the sidewalk.
So although the world right now may be appropriately described with “desolation,” I hope we use a new word to describe our world moving forward.
A new word that comes with a lesson that can be learned from every community’s most vulnerable population…
Resilience to bounce back and create a better and safer world.